Why ‘The Blair Witch Project’ Still Matters
On July 16, 1999, Haxan Films released a low budget horror movie called The Blair Witch Project. This tiny endeavor weighed in with a budget of sixty thousand dollars which was pretty much the Hollywood equivalent of one week of catering services on a James Cameron picture. By the end of its Domestic theatrical run, this movie which featured no stars and no known industry names that rhymed with Tarantino or Harlin had captured a net haul of nearly two hundred and fifty million dollars. In a town that values above all else the financial bottom line, these were numbers that could not be ignored by even the stodgiest and most resistant to change studio heads. With little fanfare, a tiny genre picture had forever changed Hollywood and how it did business. But I’ll get to that…
There is more to the story of The Blair Witch Project than box-office numbers and a revolutionizing of the film industry. The real narrative of the film is of the devilishly and deceptively simple story as written and directed by fellow cinephiles Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, two classmates at the University of Central Florida. They banded together to create a love letter to all of their favorite “bump in the night” pop culture they grew up with such as In Search of and The Legend of Boggy Creek, those sorts of pseudo-documentary styled television shows and movies that were so over the top they actually achieved a level of genuine cheesy eeriness and kept an entire generation of kids awake well into the night, clutching protectively to their blankets as they whispered silent prayers that their night lights – that last bastion of protection for kiddom from the Monsters in the Closet and Under the Bed – would go undimmed.
The premise of their story was simple: Three college students trek into the Maryland woods in late October to film a documentary on a local legend called “the Blair Witch.” No one ever sees them again and one year later their footage is discovered. This summary is stated all up front of the actual movie itself and what is presented is the reels of footage they took during their time in the woods and strung together to offer some evidence as to what may – or may not – have occurred. As a device to cloak the proceedings at the very start with a feeling of uneasy dread (after all, we know something bad happened to the three, we just don’t know the what.), this works like gangbusters.
A lot about what really works in truly good horror is significant buildup and believable characters that you feel compelled to watch, even when you would much rather be covering your eyes for fear of what might happen to people you have become attached to. In The Blair Witch Project, Myrick and Sanchez get this basic formula and play it like maestros, setting up scenarios that become progressively creepier the closer to the woods the characters get. We eavesdrop on their self-serious ruminations about the origins of the Blair Witch and laugh along nervously with them as they poke fun at some of the more outlandish urban legends that have popped up about the Witch and the local rubes who perpetuate the stories.
This is a three person play, basically: The director of the documentary and the one spearheading the overnight stay in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland is Heather. She’s bright enough and it becomes clear very early on that she has a problem with not being in control of what’s going on around her which contradicts the nature of her two man crew, Josh and Mike, two easygoing guys who look like they’d much rather be throwing back pints at the local bar than running around thick undergrowth. As read on the page, these three people could easily fall into “types” we’ve seen in a million and one bad horror movies. Usually these are the characters that we wind up rooting for a particularly grisly demise out of our sheer boredom of having seen umpteen cardboard cutout versions. To the writers and actors good credit in this movie, though, they are alive and vital and we genuinely like them and hey, it wouldn’t be so bad to throw back a few beers with these joes ourselves, would it?
As the trio barrels through the woods, the starkness of the dead autumn woods and all of the stories collected by them from local townspeople no longer seems over the top and kooky. Instead, a newfound gravitas rears its ugly head and wraps itself around the absurd turning it, finally into the all-too frighteningly possible. The first night is all Archie Bunker laughter and sly pop culture references to Gilligan’s Island. Their own laughing and joking seems to diffuse some of the nervous energy, but there is always that sense that something is not quite right here, something is off. The quiet moments in the film are the most jarring and rely on technique that bears a relationship to Peter Weir’s own rumination on Nature versus Man versus Fate, Picnic at Hanging Rock. There is no traditional soundtrack in the film to speak of, no soundtrack at all as a matter of fact and just that deliberate omission somehow makes things seem more sinister and malignant, the stripping of the traditional horror film score with all of its varied “stings” (looking at you here, John Carpenter) and crescendos that, in a weird way, sometimes feels like an audience security blanket in its usual dependability in turning up. The movie, stripped of all of that, takes on the urgency and slow dread of an actual documentary shot by a missing group of students. The ship is going down in dark, dark waters my friends and there will be no life preservers.
The brilliance of The Blair Witch Project is in its minimalism. The directors know that the scariest things are those that are just off camera that we can’t quite see or make out. Sounds begin to reverberate late at night through the woods with no precise point of origin and bundles of sticks are fashioned together and deliberately left where the filmmakers are sure to find them, producing the feeling of someone hunting them.
Towards the end of the film, there is a character revealing moment when Mike, the pop culture savvy of the group, stares helplessly at encroaching forest on all sides of them, reflecting with his thousand yard stare what we the audience can’t help but feel: Something very bad is going down and there is no way of preventing it. It’s like we’re on a rollercoaster ride from hell stuck on the same loop. An exchange between Mike and Heather discussing where they should head since they seem hopelessly lost – Josh by this time has mysteriously vanished during the previous night – captures it all so perfectly:
Mike: “Wicked Witch of the West, Wicked Witch of the East. Which one was bad?”
Heather: “Wicked Witch of the West was the bad one.”
Mike: “Then we should go east.”
The film ends ambiguously enough and forces its audience once again to connect dots and come to a conclusion as to what finally happened (Full Disclosure: It’s not a happy ending, ambiguity or not).
Fast forward an internet publicity campaign (one of the first films to successfully capture the market by using the still embryonic internet), critical and commercial acclaim and the real legacy of the film – which has itself spawned two ill-advised sequels, comic book spin-offs, companion books, documentaries (irony anyone?) and video games – has been in its use of one of the oldest Hollywood secrets: In lieu of a budget and known talent you had better make sure you have a tight script and talented enough actors to pull it all off; which the film did, and then some. The movie also acted as a beacon for other no-frills productions, mostly in the horror genre, that used the “found footage” technique as a secret handshake for the fans enamored with Blair Witch to get them back for more of the same (but, you know, different): the Paranormal Activity series, Willow Creek and Cloverfield were some of the more successful films that used the documentary as a devise to tell their stories. Of course, much like the original Halloween, there was an eventual glut of these sorts of films with more bad than good being the rule. A legacy though cannot and should not be based off of just the negative that grows out from it in a way that the original filmmakers ever wanted or envisioned. It’s the sum whole of all of its parts, good and bad and the real legacy is the films that came after that were shown the way by two film school geeks known as Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez.
Not a bad legacy at all for a little ghost story and a victory for all of us who like our horror subtle, curled with crackling fires, dark woods and anguished cries in the inky blackness of night.